Posted by: sbbunce | September 13, 2009

Teaching as an invitation to think: The work of Paolo Freire

‘There is no such thing as a neutral education process. Education either functions as an instrument which is used to facilitate the integration of generations into the logic of the present system and bring about conformity to it, or it becomes the ‘practice of freedom’, the means by which men and women deal critically with reality and discover how to participate in the transformation of their world.’
—Jane Thompson, drafreire2wing on Paulo Freire.

Many of the antecedents to community-based approaches which place communities at the centre of operational decision-making can be found in the work of Brazilian educator Paolo Freire. Freire has been a prolific voice in the formation of many adult education and community development projects

Working primarily among the illiterate poor, Freire came to adopt a non-orthodox form of what could be considered liberation theology. Freire argued that the ‘educator’ should not assume the position of an omniscient figure who determines the scope of the lesson and regards students as passive objects of learning. Students should instead be placed in an environment that raises awareness of the knowledge they already hold and assists them to analyze and challenge limiting or oppressive power structures.

In 1961, Freire was appointed director of the Department of Cultural Extension of Recife University, and in 1962 he had the first opportunity for significant application of his theories, when 300 sugarcane workers were taught to read and write in just 45 days. In response to this experiment, the Brazilian government approved the creation of thousands of cultural circles across the country. In Brazil at that time, literacy was a requirement for voting in presidential elections, and therefore a fundamental aspect of democratic participation. Freire’s initiatives were short-circuited with the military coup of 1964, and he was briefly imprisoned before being exiled to Bolivia. He worked in Chile for five years for the Christian Democratic Agrarian Reform Movement and the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. He worked also at Harvard University and in Geneva, before returning to São Paulo in the early 1980s, where he was eventually appointed Secretary of Education.

Freire’s emphasis on listening to and learning from the oppressed, without romanticising their views, takes on the form of listening to, recuperating, learning from, as well as building upon, the subjugated knowledge of the colonized (McLaren and Leonard, 1993). Employing a keen anthropological eye, Freire would facilitate class interaction in which students from even slightly different backgrounds would come to be made aware of cultural nuances and behaviours of classmates. In his English classes, for example, students discussed their backgrounds and cultural differences they faced both within the classroom and with Anglo-America. In other Freire-inspired community initiatives, education workers are first advised to observe the body-language of students interacting with local teachers. The rationale is that, through being more culturally sensitive and aware, the teachers produces a comfortable classroom environment.  (See Wallerstein, 1983)

On Freire’s teaching approach, Nina Wallerstein writes: ‘By discussing their personal experiences students can uncover the social pressures which affect them as members of an ethnic group. Critical thinking begins when people make the connections between their individual lives and social conditions. It ends one step beyond perception toward the action people take to regain control over the social structures detrimental to their lives’. (1983: 195) This resonates with a socio-ecological model utilized in UNHCR work which that takes into account matters of individual agency: how the individual structures, and remains structured by, various groups, institutions and ideologies at large.

Freire was also instrumental in the formation of a Participatory Research methodology. This methodology has formed the backbone for countless ethnographic studies and community development initiatives. Participatory Research provides a collaborative structure of doing research in dialogue with the people and not for the people, it encourages the development of voice and personal and societal decision making through data collection of the actual words of the participants.

Freire’s highly influential ‘liberation theology’ and his Pedagogy of the Oppressed (first published in 1968) elucidated the limitations of eurocentric thought. He proposed a pedagogy which might ‘decolonize the mind’, and valorize indigenous knowledge and perspectives emerging from the so-called ‘Third World’. However, Freire himself was quick to draw attention to the constraints of any ‘solutions’ offered by his methods. He wrote: ‘Experiments cannot be transplanted, they must be reinvented’, again a reminder that community education projects are a two-way process in need of constant contextualization and renegotiation.

See also:

Peter McLaren and Peter Leonard (eds.), ‘Paulo Freire A Critical Encounter’, 194 pp, New York and London, Routledge, 1993.

Jane Thompson in Peter Mayo, ‘Gramsci, Freire, and Adult Education: Possibilities for Transformative Action’, London, MacMillan, 1999

Nina Wallerstein,’The Teaching Approach of Paolo Freire’, Methods that Work (pp190-206), Boston, Heinle and Heinle, 1983.
See: (Accessed 6 September, 2009)



  1. love this. very good resources – great connections. thanks!

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